The War Within: Siegfried Sassoon's War Poetry, 1914-1919
The war poetry of Siegfried Sassoon was characterised in large part by ambivalence. The extent to which this was the result of his own war experiences can be determined by examining the poetry in conjunction with his memoirs and a chronology of his participation in the war, a reading which shows that two main events in Sassoon's experience of the war contributed to this ambivalence, shaping the general themes and mood of his poetry, and rendering it much more bitter and more philosophically complex.
Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man is the first volume of the thinly-fictionalised 'George Sherston' memoirs (it is strange, and perhaps a little sad, that Sassoon should have felt the need to eliminate his own exotic name —an Oriental Jewish surname from his father, and a first name given him by his Wagner-loving Anglo-Catholic mother). At the war's beginning Sassoon portrays himself as a bluff fox-hunting country squire, deeply suspicious of socialism (in marked contrast to his radical post-war self) with few interests outside horses and country life. His love of the countryside probably contributed to the pronounced pastoralism in his war poetry, although Sassoon was hardly as unsophisticated as this self-portrait would suggest.
Sassoon enlisted in the Sussex Yeomanry at the age of twenty-seven, as soon as war began, on 3rd August 1914. In Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, Sassoon reflects on his expectations at the time of what the war would be like: "I had serious aspirations to heroism in the field….I felt very much a man dedicated to death. And to one who had never heard the hiss of machine-gun bullets, there was nothing….abhorrent in the notion." (Sassoon, The Complete Memoirs of George Sherston, 219-220.) This enthusiasm is captured in his first poem of the war, "Absolution," its diction similar to that of Rupert Brooke's 1914 Sonnets and, like them, a paean to war and death. It asks exultantly, "Now, having claimed this heritage of heart, / What need we more, my comrades and my brothers?" (Rupert Hart-Davis, ed., The War Poems of Siegfried Sassoon, 15.)
However, Sassoon quickly became bored with life in the Sussex Yeomanry, and, desperate to see action, obtained a commission in the Royal Welch Fusiliers. He joined the First Battalion of his regiment in France in November 1915. His first experience of the war was accompanying a working-party, which is recounted in his diary: "Wet day. Awful mud….came home soaked….Beastly night for the men, whose billets are wretched." (Sassoon, Memoirs, 248.) This inspired "The Redeemer," which contains the lines "We were soaked, chilled and wretched, every one;/ Darkness; the distant wink of a huge gun." (War Poems, 16.) This is the first hint of negativity towards the war in his poetry, but it is tempered by a thought that it still has a purpose: "he'll endure/ Horror and pain, not uncontent to die/ That Lancaster on Lune may stand secure." Here he compares the private soldier to Christ (the Redeemer), and his sacrifice is made analogous to the religious view of Christ's death -the soldier endures agony so that others might enjoy security. (Christian religion was to become a frequent motif in Sassoon's war poetry, and his treatment of it would gradually veer over the course of the war from the reverent to the exasperated.)
Just prior to the working-party expedition Sassoon had met D. C. Thomas, another officer, the young man referred to as "Dick Tiltwood" in the Memoirs. Sassoon instantly formed a very strong attachment to him, consisting of admiration of Thomas's character, protectiveness of the younger man, and fascination with his good looks. His affection for Thomas forms one of the themes of his early war poetry (in such poems as "A Subaltern"). Shortly after their meeting Sassoon received word that his brother Hamo Sassoon had been killed at Gallipoli, and he wrote the poem "To My Brother" in Hamo's memory, in which he seems confident that there was a meaning to his death: "But in the gloom I see your laurell'd head, / And through your victory I shall win the light." (Ibid., 18.) (It was only when Sassoon began to be disillusioned by the war that he abandoned this Brookean 'high diction' --as identified in Paul Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory— in favour of more realistic modes of expression. It is a measure of the war's transformative power that the man who wrote "laurell'd" in 1915 could write, two years later, "O Jesus, make it stop!")
After the expedition there followed a time of relative peace and quiet behind the front lines, during which Sassoon was very contented. He wrote some of his most optimistic poems of the war at this point, including "A Testament" and "The Undying." However, ambivalence returns in "The Prince of Wounds" (which shows him questioning his faith again) and "In the Pink," which he wrote when moved by the plight of a machine-gun officer he knew who had died of alcoholic poisoning in the trenches. This is the first poem in which he really focuses on the hardships of the common soldier, and reflects on the possible meaninglessness of war: "And still the war goes on -he don't know why." (Ibid, 22.) Sassoon was also occasionally depressed by the conditions of trench life during the early stages of the war, as "Golgotha", written in March of 1916, makes clear.
D. C. Thomas was soon sent to the front, in spite of Sassoon's reluctance to let him go. Sassoon was still grieving for his brother, and it was at around this time that he also heard that Dixon, the old groom-gardener with whom he had spent much of his childhood, had died of pneumonia while in the trenches. Moreover, when he returned home on leave he discovered too that "England wasn't what it used to be." (Memoirs, 269.) (His growing realisation of this is one of the themes of the Sherston memoirs). Already he found himself sympathising with the German troops when he heard them referred to as "hell-hounds": "I found myself defending them, although I couldn't claim acquaintance with a single one of them." (Ibid.)
Returning to France after his leave, Sassoon visited Thomas at the front and noted with concern that the war appeared to have taken its toll on his friend's spirits. Sassoon's own emotions were probably already frayed by all his recent negative experiences by the time he went back behind the lines, which may partially explain why the death of D. C. Thomas on a working-party expedition hit him so hard, even harder than his own brother's death had done. In the memoirs Sassoon numbly describes Thomas's funeral: "A sack was lowered into a hole in the ground. The sack was Dick. I knew Death then." (Ibid., 274.) A death similar to Thomas's is described in "A Working Party," written at this time. With its grim attention to detail and barely-muffled anger, it constitutes the first of Sassoon's mature war poems; the mildness of the soldier is contrasted sharply with the violence of the bullet that kills him: "And as he dropped his head the instant split/ His startled life with lead, and all went out." (War Poems, 26-27.)
D. C. Thomas's death marks a significant change in Sassoon himself and in his poetry: he now became more bitter towards religion ("Stand-to: Good Friday Morning") and vengeful: "I went up to the trenches with the intention of killing someone. It was my idea of getting a bit of my own back." (Memoirs, 274-275.) This reaction to Thomas's death may help to explain the sentiment of the well-known poem "The Kiss," which has been variously interpreted as a satire on a military lecture, and as a disturbing statement of intent to kill Germans in revenge. Furthermore, Sassoon was now "angry with the War." (Ibid., 276.) He also became more interested in the idea of death in April 1916: "I had more or less made up my mind to die; the idea made things easier." (Ibid., 280.) His outlook had begun to shift towards the anger and cynicism that characterise his mature war poems. The profound effect that the loss of Thomas had on him can be gauged by examining the frequency with which he reappears in Sassoon's poetry, even two years after his death; the memoirs show that Sassoon lost many friends in the war, including a number of men in his own battalion of whom he was fond, but the extent to which Thomas features in the poetry shows Sassoon to have been deeply hurt by his death. For Sassoon, it appears that Thomas gradually became symbolic of the war's destruction of beauty, youth and innocence.
Towards the end of April 1916 Sassoon was sent to the Flixécourt Fourth Army School, where he managed to be a little happier with a room of his own, pastoral surroundings, and books to read. Here he wrote "France," which shows a reversion to his earlier way of thinking about the war: "they are fortunate, who fight/ For gleaming landscapes swept and shafted." (War Poems, 30.) By this point, however, such enthusiasm for the war seems only to have come over Sassoon when he was away from the front lines, in pastoral surroundings which made him feel renewed. While at Flixécourt he also wrote the remarkable, emotionally-charged "The Last Meeting," which is clearly about D. C. Thomas. Thomas is identified throughout with innocence and the beauty of nature. The poem's pastoralism is extraordinary in its intensity and its almost photographic detail, bordering on the exotic ("I knew him crushed to earth in scentless flowers, / And lifted in the rapture of dark pines"). (Ibid., 33.) Sassoon manages to reach a sense of resignation to Thomas's death in the second stanza of the poem's third part: the war has preserved his love and regard for Thomas in their first glow ("So he will never come but in delight, / And, as it was in life, his name shall be/ Wonder awaking in a summer dawn"). (Ibid., 35.) The poem is certainly not one of his best -it is too overwrought for that—but it represents, in its coming to terms with the loss of Thomas, a significant emotional change in Sassoon. This change is registered as well in a verse-letter written at about the same time to Robert Graves, who had also known Thomas and been saddened by his death. It is really all right, says Sassoon, because "Now he's here again; I've seen/ Soldier David dressed in green, / Standing in a wood that swings/ To the madrigal he sings." (Ibid., 37.) The preciously whimsical quality of these lines suggests that Sassoon is feeling better. He also seems to be more positive in his attitude towards the war again, for in the same letter he remarks, "All the while I watch the spark/ Lit to guide me; for I know/ Dreams will triumph." (Ibid., 38.) This change of heart is startling given the emotional turmoil that Sassoon had recently been through, and it is interesting that there is no corresponding passage in Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (the second part of the Sherston memoirs) describing this turnabout. It appears that his pastoralism was sustaining him to a large extent at this point; "Before the Battle," written a few days before the attack on the Somme, shows him similarly dwelling on the beauty of nature ("O bear me safe through dark, you low-voiced streams.") (Ibid., 39.)
Sassoon returned to the front, and the Battle of the Somme began on the first of July. The battle, which was intended to divert the Germans and take pressure off the French in the Verdun offensive, achieved no real gains and resulted in over one million casualties, with the first day of battle alone producing 60 000 British casualties, about 20 000 of whom died. This proved to be a more significant turning-point in Sassoon's poetry than Thomas's death, and the point at which he began to reflect extensively on the graphic horror of war. He became ill in July and was sent to hospital at Amiens. Here he wrote "Dead of Wounds," which recounts the delirious ravings of a young wounded soldier in the same ward who eventually died ("All the horror of the Somme attacks was in that raving," he remarks in the Memoirs). (Memoirs, 366.) The well-known "A Night Attack," also written at this time, describes the horror of decaying corpses and recounts Sassoon's discovery of a dead German soldier ("He was a Prussian with a decent face, / Young, fresh, and pleasant, so I dare to say. / No doubt he loathed the war and longed for peace"). (War Poems, 43.) Although the Memoirs suggest that Sassoon had previously defended the Germans from the "hell-hounds" slur, this is the first time that the well-known Sassoon theme of compassion for the enemy emerges in the poetry, a sentiment that is odd in a man who, according to Robert Graves, was extremely warlike ("the number of Germans whom I killed or caused to be killed could hardly be compared with his wholesale slaughter….he varied between happy warrior and bitter pacifist"); nevertheless, it appears that at this stage his awareness of the beastliness of war and of the enemy's humanity was becoming firmly entrenched. (Robert Graves, quoted in Jon Silkin, Out of Battle: The Poetry of the Great War, 136.)
Due to the intervention of a doctor who had discovered that Sassoon had won the Military Cross, he was sent home to England, to hospital in Oxford, in August 1914. While there he again ruminated on the notion that "England wasn't quite what it used to be….People weren't the same as they used to be, or else I had changed. Was it because I had experienced something that they couldn't share or imagine?" (Memoirs, 370-371.) This sense of alienation would be expressed in its bitterest form in his later satires of the ignorance and (as he viewed it) callousness of the home front. While at Oxford he wrote his most anti-religious poem yet, "Christ and the Soldier," which illustrates his own growing lack of faith ("'Lord Jesus, ain't you got no more to say?'/ Bowed hung that head beneath the crown of thorns.") (War Poems, 46.) One of his best-known poems, "The Hero," was written at this time. Hardyesque in its irony, it satirises the ignorance and wishful thinking of soldiers' parents with regard to their sons' true behaviour in the war and the conditions under which they were fighting. By extension, the poem criticises the values which made such illusions tenable. It was probably a product of Sassoon's observations of the strained relations between injured young soldiers and their parents. At this point in Sassoon's war experiences, his poetry diverges from that which was written in the earlier phase of the war in that it still dwells on the negative aspects of war while he is away from the front (previously Sassoon would usually write about the negative aspects of war while in the front lines, and write about the possibility of heroism and spiritual meaning in war when he was away from the front.) Now Sassoon no longer seems to see any good in war; his total disillusionment at this time is reflected in his poetry.
Also in August he wrote what, in my view, is his most moving war poem, "The Death-Bed," made up of memories "of hospital at Amiens and a canoe on the Cherwell." (Ibid., 53.) It is a full realisation of the tragedy of war as Sassoon had witnessed it in hospital, taking the reader inside the mind of a soldier who is dying and describing his physical and mental sensations. It is interesting that at about this time Sassoon's poetry began to shift from being about specific people to focussing more on the archetype of the common soldier, as opposed to D. C. Thomas or other particular individuals he had known. Archetypes appear in "Christ and the Soldier," "The One-Legged Man," "The Hero," "Stretcher-Case," and (of course) "The Death-Bed." It is as though his experience of the Somme, coupled with his removal from the war, had given him a perspective on the war's massive human cost that allowed him to empathise to a greater extent with the ordinary soldier.
Sassoon spent the next few months in Sussex resting and indulging in some of his pre-war pursuits. This must have been absorbing, because for the first time since September 1915 a whole month elapsed without the appearance of any new poems. In October, however, he returned to writing and produced his first truly satirical poems -"A Ballad," which, significantly, has a Kiplingesque metre, and "They." Both are bitter (the first concerns the hypocrisy of the Staff and the second is anti-clerical) and both exhibit, in as yet a rough and unpolished form, what later became a Sassoon satirical trademark, the knock-out blow in the final line of a poem. These poems, with their angry attacks on those whom Sassoon sees as responsible for the war, are obviously products of his experience at the Somme. In November he mused, in "Decorated," on the moral hypocrisy of sanctioning and applauding murder merely because it is murder of the enemy on the battlefield. This is one of the first signs of his objection to the war on philosophical or moral grounds.
However, in November and December of 1916 Sassoon seems to have had another attack of ambivalence, producing "A Mystic as Soldier," "The Poet as Hero," and "Secret Music," all of which seem to articulate the idea that war has some redemptive spiritual or mystical quality, while at the same time also emphasising its negative aspects. This mood passed, however, as soon as he returned to the regimental depot at Liverpool on the fourth of December. "A Whispered Tale" is about the loss of family members in the war and the emotional trauma leading to mental illness that this can cause, portraying a man in the Royal Welch Fusiliers whose brothers had been killed. "The Distant Song" ironically contrasts the dehumanising effect of the war with the beauty of birdsong (a common theme in World War I poetry), while "The March-Past" is another indictment of the Staff. It seems that his return to the company of other soldiers had brought Sassoon's moral indignation to the surface again. At the beginning of January 1917 D. C. Thomas seems to have been briefly on Sassoon's mind, appearing in the poem "Enemies." It appears that this was provoked by Sassoon's reading of a Danish anti-war diatribe which focussed on the sacrifice of young men to the war effort: "wild talk like that was new to me. I thought of Dick Tiltwood, and how he used to come into the hut with such shining evidences of youth in his face." (Memoirs, 393.) The article fed Sassoon's own growing doubts about the war. At the end of January 1917 he was again deemed fit for military action, and sent to France, where he trained conscripts. At about this time he wrote the savagely satirical poem "Blighters," but there is no indication from the memoirs of his feeling this level of anger at the time. "Conscripts," written on about 17 February, shows his growing self-awareness and a new-found ability to laugh at himself; in it he reflects ruefully on the fact that the men he likes are emphatically not the ones who distinguish themselves at the front, in sharp contrast to working-class soldiers ("many a sickly, slender lord who filled/ My soul long since with lutanies of sin, / Went home, because they couldn't stand the din.") (War Poems, 69.)
Sassoon contracted German measles and was sent to hospital in Rouen, where he completed the frequently anthologised "Base Details." It stands as one of the bitterest of the anti-authority poems, with its Generals who "toddle safely home and die -in bed" after sending young men "up the line to death." (Ibid., 71.) At about the same time, however, he began to feel an odd eagerness to get back to the war, writing in "In the Church of St Ouen" "The Spring Offensive (Easter is its date) /Calls me. And that's the music I await." (Ibid., 72.) In the Memoirs, he wonders at this: "Last year, before the Somme, I hadn't known what I was in for. I knew now; and the idea was giving me emotional satisfaction!" (Memoirs, 420.)
Again, however, this mood did not last long, shifting after Sassoon had joined the Second Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers on the Somme front in March and taken part in the Arras offensive in April. This was also a battle intended to divert the Germans from a French attack elsewhere; the British advanced three-and-a-half miles, and then ran out of artillery support. Sassoon was wounded in the attack and ended up in the military hospital again, where he wrote "The Optimist," "The Rear-Guard," "To the War-Mongers," and "The General" -another of his better-known satirical poems, which contains the final line "But he did for them both with his plan of attack." (War Poems, 78.) It refers specifically to the Arras attack. These poems are all expressive of what was becoming his usual post-battle frame of mind: profound disillusionment and bitterness.
Sassoon was sent home to Sussex to convalesce in May 1917, and relaxed a little in the beauty of his surroundings. The lady of the manor house in which he was staying had Spiritualist leanings, which antagonised him and inspired the rather unkindly satirical "Supreme Sacrifice," in which he wrote "How cheery the brave troops would be/ If Sergeant-Majors taught Theosophy!" (Ibid., 81.) In mid-June he wrote "To Any Dead Officer," which shows a return to form. Again he uses an archetype (any dead officer) to lament the slaughter of men in the war: "I'm blind with tears, / Staring into the dark. Cheeroh! / I wish they'd killed you in a decent show." (Ibid., 83.)
Meanwhile Sassoon's philosophical and moral opposition to the war had been developing further. Two events brought it to a head: a letter from a member of his battalion, telling him that all but one of the officers in it had been killed in a failed attack, and a subsequent conversation with the editor of The Nation, who informed him that England was refusing to state its war aims because they concerned the acquisition of certain Middle Eastern oil wells. These revelations set off a spasm of righteous indignation in Sassoon, and he decided to write an anti-war statement to be read out by a pacifist MP in Parliament, and posted to his own commanding officer. He stayed in Kent throughout July and there wrote a statement which, among other things, asserted that the war was being deliberately prolonged for dishonourable reasons by those who had the means to end it. While in Kent he also composed one of his finest and most moving poems against the war, "Repression of War Experience," which, sketching a post-war domestic scene, evokes the emotional and psychological harm inflicted on men by the ceaseless sound of the barrage. It contains the bitterest references yet to those members of the Establishment whom he thought responsible for the war: "old men who died/ Slow, natural deaths -old men with ugly souls, / Who wore their bodies out with nasty sins." (Ibid., 85.) After his statement was issued Sassoon was put under a great deal of pressure by friends and members of the Staff to drop his anti-war stance. The hardening of his resolve in the face of this opposition can be seen in his two poems of the time, "Lamentations" and "The Effect," which dwell on the physical and psychological trauma of war. "Lamentations" is interesting because it is written as satirical monologue from the perspective of a callous onlooker, possibly a member of the Staff, observing the grief of a soldier who had lost his brother: "In my belief/ Such men have lost all patriotic feeling." (Ibid., 86.) This, by the way, is based on an incident that Sassoon had witnessed about six months earlier. In his indignation at the general indifference to soldiers' suffering, earlier experiences seem to come to the surface in his poetry at this time. Because of his refusal to back down over the newspaper statement, Sassoon was persuaded to face a medical board, at which Robert Graves testified on his behalf. Sassoon had met Graves earlier in the war and the two had become close friends (Graves is disguised in the memoirs as "David Cromlech") and, unbeknownst to him, Graves had been working behind the scenes to arrange a medical board for him, instead of a court-martial. The medical board idea was also useful to the Staff, because a diagnosis of shell-shock would allow them to slough off Sassoon's protest as the product of an unhinged mind. This was in fact the diagnosis that the board reached, and Sassoon was placed in Craiglockhart War Hospital in Scotland from July until November 1917 to recuperate.
At Craiglockhart he came under the care of the eminent psychologist W. R. Rivers. Sassoon benefited enormously from his relationship with the older man, who seems to have functioned as a father figure to the fatherless Sassoon. His talks with Rivers enabled him to clarify his ideas in his own mind, and lessened his feelings of isolation: "Three evenings a week I went along to Rivers' room to give my anti-war complex an airing….I would give a lot for a few gramophone records of my talks with Rivers. All that matters is my remembrance of the great and good man who gave me his friendship and guidance." (Memoirs, 521.) The warmth of Sassoon's feelings for Rivers, even after the elapse of a number of years (the third volume of the memoirs, Sherston's Progress, in which this episode is described, was not published until the late 1930s) is striking, particularly given the fact that Rivers was on the opposite side of the argument, in the service of the Staff, and was supposed to change Sassoon's mind about his anti-war position. Nevertheless, Sassoon blossomed as a war poet at Craiglockhart, writing many of his best-known poems, including "Glory of Women," "Prelude: The Troops," "Attack" (which contains the famous line "O Jesus, make it stop!") and "Counter-Attack." Whatever emotional benefit he derived from Rivers's company, their discussions do not seem to have made much difference to his anti-war convictions. In the poems of this period these feelings are fully and maturely articulated, and the major themes of his work are clearly evident: compassion for the ordinary soldier, indictment of the home front, irony towards religion, guilt at being separated from his men and longing to return to the war (there is another touch of ambivalence here), the war's interminableness, the horror of corpses, and psychological damage inflicted by the war. In fact, this was an extraordinarily rich creative period for Sassoon, whether measured by the number of poems he wrote, or by the depth and range of subjects and themes he explored. This was no doubt partially the result not only of interactions with Rivers, but also with Wilfred Owen, a fellow patient at the hospital (although, oddly, this is hardly mentioned at all in the Memoirs). It is significant that the stay at Craiglockhart is the point at which Sherston's Progress begins.
Eventually, however, the hospital's atmosphere, heavy with the distress of shell-shocked men, began to play on Sassoon's nerves. Also it had occurred to Rivers that if Sassoon could be passed fit for military service, and thus shown to be sane, it would be a blow to those who had tried to dismiss his newspaper statement as a piece of shell shock-induced lunacy, while also a means of persuading Sassoon to return to his duties; thus both sides would benefit. Sassoon himself sardonically viewed a return to fighting as a method of ultimately getting his own back: "Killed in action to confute the Under-Secretary for War, who had officially stated that I wasn't responsible for my actions. What a truly glorious death for a promising young pacifist!" (Ibid., 541.)
Sassoon was passed fit for General Service in November and posted to Limerick (hardly an inferno, and this was no doubt a calculation on the part of the Staff) on 7 January, 1918. There he trained recruits and found time to write more poetry, but, in spite of his pleasant surroundings, he was still haunted by memories of France. One of his poems of the time, "The Dream," reveals the psychological strain of being an officer in charge of men, including "burning bitterness/That I must take them to the accursed Line." (War Poems, 112.) D.C. Thomas was again on his mind, if "Invocation" is anything to go by. The poem "Memory," written in February, again conveys ambivalence about the war: "For death has made me wise and bitter and strong/ And I am rich in all that I have lost."(Ibid., 117.) While the poem yearns for a return to the pre-war world, at the same time Sassoon appears to feel that he has gained something from his war experiences. "Remorse," like the earlier "Glory of Women," betrays a hint of compassion for those at home ("there's things in war one dare not tell/ Poor father, sitting safe at home, who reads/ Of dying heroes and their deathless deeds.'") (Ibid., 118.) However, "Suicide in the Trenches," published shortly afterwards, contains one of the bitterest -and most famous— injunctions yet to the home front: "Sneak home and pray you'll never know/ The hell where youth and laughter go." (Ibid., 119.) In his attitude to the home front as well as to the war, Sassoon seems to vacillate a little.
After his stint in Limerick, Sassoon was posted to Palestine and arrived in the middle of March. Judging from Sherston's Progress, he did not find Palestine nearly as disagreeable as France. His only poem from this time, "Concert Party," deals with the homesickness of the troops ("O sing us the songs….of our own land, / You warbling ladies in white.") (Ibid., 120.) His battalion was sent to France again in early May. While on board ship he noted in his diary that "I begin to see that the War has re-made me and done away with a lot of my ideas that were no good. So I am really better for it, in spite of scowling at it." (Memoirs, 607.) However, during the voyage he also struck a note of foreboding about returning to the front, in "Night on the Convoy": "I remember Arras, and that hill/ Where dumb with pain I stumbled among the dead/….We are going home…victims…three thousand souls." (War Poems, 121.) The troops disembarked at Habarcq. It is odd that sometimes no connection can be found between diary-entries and poems written on a certain date -thus the entry for 5th June and the poem "Reward," written on the same day, bear no relation to each other. The first is a prosaic and placid diary entry, while the second contains a very earnest death wish: "O brothers in my striving, it were best/ That I should share your rest." (Ibid., 122.) As the war went on, Sassoon's poems bore less and less of a parallel with his daily experiences, and frequently expressed deeper and more irrational impulses.
His death wish was almost granted on 13 July, when he was shot in the head by a fellow British soldier who had mistaken him for a German. Sassoon discovered with a shock that he didn't want to die after all: "The world had been mine, and the fullness of life, and in a moment all had been changed and I was to lose it." (Memoirs, 649.) The irony of being wounded by friendly fire struck Sassoon forcibly: "The outcome was absurd, but logical." (Ibid., 650.) Invalided home to hospital, he wrote Graves a verse-letter that is remarkable for its strange hilarity, exultation, and unprecedented self-satire. He makes fun of his own failure to die ("the quivering songster failed to die/ Because the bloody Bullet missed its mark") and of his iconic line "O Jesus, make it stop," exclaiming frivolously "O Jesu make it stop!" in connection with tiresome afternoon visitors, and "O Jesu make it cease" with regard to his own mental churning. (War Poems, 130, 132.) A burlesque of Kipling's metrical habits appears mid-way through the letter, and there are numerous excited references to wanting to be back in France with his battalion, which is continuing to distinguish itself in his absence ("they would send me back," "I—wasn't there--/O blast it isn't fair"). (Ibid., 131-132.) The reason for all this exuberance and self-mockery (apart from an obvious intent to amuse) seems to have been an interview just previously with Rivers, who had turned up to find Sassoon in a crisis of inner conflict about the war, torturing himself over whether he wanted to die or not, and whether he should try to get back to the front: "And then, unexpected and unannounced, Rivers came in and closed the door behind him….My futile demons fled him -for his presence was a refutation of wrong-headedness." (Memoirs, 655.) This interview is referred to in the poem, which functions as a sort of catharsis in which Sassoon sends up the war, his reactions to it, and his present injury ("Some day my brain will go BANG,/ And then they'll say what lovely faces were/The soldier lads he sang.") (War Poems, 132.)
Sherston's Progress closes with the Rivers interview, which indicates how important the conversation was in Sassoon's own psychological adjustment to his situation. However, although he was then on indefinite sick-leave until the end of the war, he continued to write war poems which either satirise the Establishment or deal with the emotional after-effects of the war itself. The most famous of the latter, written after the Armistice, is "Aftermath," which issues a challenge to troops who survived the war to prevent it from happening again: "Have you forgotten yet?..../Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you'll never forget." (Ibid., 143.) "Everyone Sang," written in April 1919, reflects on the possibility of still appreciating beauty after the war ("Everyone's voice was suddenly lifted; /And beauty came like the setting sun.") (Ibid., 144.) Sassoon wrote a few more poems about the war later in life, but his war poems proper are those of the period 1914-1919. Sassoon's poetry of the war was not straightforwardly satirical or angry, but rather extremely complex in mood and theme. The recurrent and increasing ambivalence in his poetry suggests that, although his main theme remained objection to the war, his thinking became more complicated and contradictory as the war went on. It is clear that there are two turning points in Sassoon's war experience after which his writing displays more anger: first the death of D.C. Thomas, and then the Battle of the Somme, which had an even greater effect on his poetry. It is noticeable that the bouts of ferocity commented on by Graves are usually heralded by one of Sassoon's more positive poems.
His views on the home front are also varied. It is true that Sassoon has a keen sense of its lack of awareness, but in his mind this frequently takes on the form of a tragic irony, at least where soldiers' families are concerned (the viciousness of poems such as "Blighters," aimed at a jingoistic music-hall audience, is in another league altogether and may be partly the product of snobbery). This nuanced attitude can be shown if we look at the relative gentleness with which the fictional Aunt Evelyn is treated in the Memoirs, and the wry musings on shattered relationships between parents and resentful soldiers, written with more pity than anger. Furthermore, Sassoon was still a man of his class with ties to others of his group. The interview with Staff member 'Major Macartney,' in Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, is interesting in this context: "He was a man of great delicacy of feeling. I have seldom known as fine a gentleman. For him the interview must have been as agonizing as it was for me. I wanted to make things easier for him; but what could I say? And what could he do for me, except, perhaps, offer me a cigar?" (Memoirs, 503-504.) Here Sassoon expresses the discomfort of a man who has to go against the norms of his own class and upbringing to defend his position; his understanding and consideration of the Major's feelings shows that this is not a simple case of "us" versus "them." He also shows considerable affection for people like 'Mr Farrell' -"Dear old Mr. Farrell, with his red tie and the cameo ring round it, and his silver hair and tobacco-stained moustache!"—who could not understand the conditions of life at the front and were "diffident" about it. (Memoirs, 370-371.)
While Sassoon was deeply conflicted about his own participation in the war, this did not prevent him from maturing as a person and a poet, showing a marked increase in self-awareness, political sophistication, and depth of moral insight. His ambivalence also did not stop him from forming a clear moral perspective on the war: his overriding conviction came to be that it was unjustifiable. The steps that he took to publicly protest the war demonstrate his belief that it was inhumane, prolonged for political reasons that were essentially acquisitive in nature. What is remarkable is that, in spite of the strain he was under, he managed to write as many cogent, coherent, and startling poems as he did. Whatever his degree of success in convincing the home front of the horror of war, this is his great accomplishment.--Isabel Taylor